The metaphor of diving into a book like diving into water has never seemed so apt to me as it is now that I’ve finished reading Shahriar Mandanipour’s stimulating novel, Censoring an Iranian Love Story. Getting into the book felt a bit like swimming against the current. By the end, though, coming back to the real world was like surfacing from the depths. I hope this sounds like a compliment, because it is. This novel engaged all of my brain with a multi-layered story that fights back against censorship with all of the unnamed narrator’s ingenuity.
The unnamed narrator wants to wright a love story. He’s tired of writing heavy books in which awful things happen to the characters and they all end up miserable or dead. But writing a love story is perhaps an impossible challenge in post-Islamic Revolution Iran. Correction: Writing it is not impossible. Publishing is. All authors have to get approval to have their books shipped from the printer to the bookstores from an agency that makes sure that every story contains no hint of sedition, dissent, or romance. As the unnamed narrator reveals, even names are fraught. Characters—and all children born in Iran—must be given approved names (usually Arabic names) that don’t glorify past monarchs. The narrator chooses Sara and Dara as his characters’ names, taken from an old children’s book.
The challenges continue after the names are chosen. How can a young man and a young woman meet in a place when men and women aren’t allowed to talk to each other unless they’re married or related? Even if they can meet, how can they talk to each other when every word has to be carefully chosen so as not to inflame any passion? We watch the narrator wrestle with these and other questions in real-time. Sentences are crossed out. Scenes are intermixed with the narrator’s streams of consciousness or memories of meeting with his censor, named for a character out of Crime and Punishment. The censor isn’t the only literary reference. The narrator mentions characters from novels and poems as if they really are walking around the streets of Tehran. He also frequently references the poetry of pre-Revolution Iran, and poets who also had to watch their words so as not to offend or inflame the very pious. But, like those poets, the narrator uses well-known metaphors about flowers and animals that can skate past the censors or deploys ellipsis whenever things are best left to the reader’s imagination.
Censorsing an Iranian Love Story gave me so many stories, all folded into one overall tale of a writer trying to write a love story in a place and time where there are so many barriers between them and their reader that one has to wonder if Sara and Dara are every allowed to express their love openly. Readers who love teasing apart layers, puzzling out symbols, and hoping that a writer can find the words to say the impossible.